One of the most difficult questions that I frequently have to answer is, “Where are you from?” Although I was born in San Diego, I moved away when I was eight when my dad joined the State Department, moving to four different countries in ten years throughout Latin America and Africa, went to college in Rhode Island, and now live in New York City (after a two-year stint in Boston). The answer to that question depends on both who I’m talking to (and if I feel like having a long conversation), and where I’m living at the time.
But perhaps the one thing that has remained absolutely constant is my love of San Diego sports. Despite the fact that I have not lived in San Diego for 19 years, I still religiously follow the San Diego Padres (baseball) and San Diego Chargers (football), despite the fact that both teams are almost always terrible- San Diego is the only major city in America that has never won a major championship. San Diego fandom is a core part of my identity, and the main way I stay in touch with my roots.
And so this week, I was, like every San Diegan, devastated upon learning that Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Fame San Diego Padres right fielder, had died from cancer at the young age of 54. Gwynn was a fundamental part of my childhood- I read his book, The Art of Hitting, almost nightly, and then practiced his swinging tips with a bat in my room. I saved up my allowance for almost a year to buy an autographed Gwynn magazine when I was six. My dad tried to convince me to eat swordfish by proclaiming that it was Gwynn’s favorite food (seeing his figure at the end of his career indisputably disproved this claim). Every San Diegan has stories like his about Gwynn.
The tremendous and all-encompassing outpouring of praise since Gwynn’s death has focused on two narratives. First, that he was one of the best hitters, ever, and underappreciated since he played in the small San Diego market. And second, that he was just a great all-around guy, who treated ball boys and stars with the same respect.
Both of these are true. But for me, the lasting legacy of Gwynn is his San Diego-ness. Simply put, he was, and will always be, the embodiment of San Diego He was from Southern California, went to San Diego State, played his entire career for the Padres and, immediately after retiring, went back to coach at San Diego State. I cannot think of an athlete, past or present, that embodied a community like Gwynn has for San Diego. Even the few athletes that have played their entire careers in the same city in recent history (Derek Jeter with the New York Yankees, Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs, Tom Brady with the New England Patriots) do not hail from the city where their team plays, live elsewhere in the offseason, and probably will not remain there when they retire.
Gwynn had the opportunity, often, to leave San Diego. He would have made (a lot) more money, received more fame prestige, and had the opportunity to win a championship had he signed with another team. But his loyalty staunchly remained in his hometown.
I could argue that this rarely happens with athletes anymore, but the reality is that it rarely happens, period, anymore. With all individuals. In our American society, it seems like we’re constantly looking for the next big thing for us– the next promotion, the job that will pay a little more, the organization that will advance us. Loyalty, to place, job, community, seems to be a thing of the past as we focus on the individual. The fact that I move from community to community, and feel little allegiance towards the community where I live, means I fit this narrative. I continue to live a largely nomadic life-style, and even though GC is largely focused on local impact, my own job takes me from major city to major city on a weekly basis.
Gwynn leaves behind such a powerful legacy- as a hitter, as a player, as a person. But perhaps most potent is the legacy he leaves on an entire community. He sacrificed personal gain because he felt such a strong tie to San Diego. It’s a lesson that we can all stand to benefit from, and one that actually might improve our entire society- putting the collective of a community over the advancing of individual pursuits. Tony Gwynn had an indelible impact on the greater San Diego community- and that’s probably the noblest legacy of all.
– Scott Warren, Executive Director
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